I called Jim Fryerto make an appointment for his ukulele class. By the time the phone clicked off, I was committed to a class and a private tour of the most historically diverse cap gun collection I’ve ever seen.
Funny how things work out.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Jim Fryman’s name throughout.
I sat in on Jim’s class last Wednesday, where his distinctive barbershop warble can be heard echoing through the halls of the Joslyn Adult Center. On this particular afternoon, five of his students accompanied him through “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Amazing Grace” and “Beautiful Brown Eyes.” Though they strummed through the selections alphabetically, the “Beer Barrel Polka” was summarily skipped to avoid a dreaded mid-song key change.
Here, musicians play ukuleles of all stripes, shapes and styles. They fill the community center’s performance hall with a staccato beat of chords and croons. And for four years, Jim, the one-time Air Force Band trumpet player and amateur genealogist, has shared his craft with ukulele players of all skill levels. Most never pick up the instrument before they meet him.
He came across the gig by accident — after seeing an ad for the class in the Joslyn newsletter, he called to inquire about meeting times.
He was told they were still looking for an instructor.
Jim, never one to miss a volunteering opportunity, happened to mention he knew some chords.
“It went downhill from there,” he said.
No experience? No worries. Jim will sit you down with your instrument and teach you three chords — with those, your repertoire will grow exponentially.
“In July of ’09, I came into this class not even knowing how to hold the thing,” said student Jon Lee.
“And now he’s surpassed me,” Jim chimed in.
At his home, Jim showed me one ukulele I didn’t get to see at the Wednesday practice. This one was smaller than the others he had, and he picked it up in Hawaii. Its thick, plastic strings are easier on his fingers than the metal strings of a guitar, and it’s altogether different than his former instrument.
“It’s harder than heck to try and sing while you’re playing the trumpet,” he said.
In his home office, cabinets filled with toy cap guns line the walls. He also collects coins and lapel pins, but he talks about this collection with the most pride. Jim’s eyes light up when he’s talking about the things he loves, and he can list off the year and model of most of the guns, which date to 1873.
They’re all Western-looking and come in all shapes and sizes, but for me, the most impressive looked just like the real-deal six-shooters of old movies. No plastic here — all are metal, and they are a wild piece of Western Americana.
The conversation always turns back to music, something his five children also enjoy. The Fryers’ son, Will, has also developed a love for the uke, and is even teaching his old man a few things.
Jim said he’ll teach the class as long as his health allows — that, and as long as there’s room in his schedule. He and his wife, Patricia, also volunteer at the Gene Autry Museum and a local genealogical society, where he’s traced his own family back to the 1740s.
In all it takes up four days out of their week — but hard work has always been in the cards for Jim, who was on call 24 hours a day in his career with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Someone’s keeping track of those volunteer hours. The Fryers show me the letter on their wall from President Obama declaring them recipients of the President’s Volunteer Award. It’s packed into what Jim calls his “Rogue’s Gallery” — the hallway leading from the living room to the master bedroom is packed with service announcements, commendations from the cities of Burbank and Los Angeles, and their original marriage license from 1954.
They raised their children in Burbank, and they joke that they agreed long ago if one of them wanted to leave, they were taking all five kids with them. Jim and Pat never had to follow through.
“That’s what happens when you marry your best friend,” Jim says.
The ornately designed marriage certificate, replete with deep reds and blues and gold leaf, is the most beautiful of the Rogue’s Gallery — the centerpiece of a home where beautiful music is still being made.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not whistling the Beer Barrel Polka, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.